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Full of Sound and Fury: The Media Response to Dennett

This post previously published as an article in the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion in 2008.

What is the best way for a well-known, unabashedly atheistic philosopher to have a discussion with the American general public about the value and nature of religion? It is not an easy question to answer. Daniel Dennett’s recent undertaking of just that task in his book Breaking the Spell has certainly not been short of controversy or criticism, which is entirely as he expects. “By asking for an accounting ofthe pros and cons of religion,” Dennett explains, “I risk getting poked in the nose or worse, and yet I persist” (257). Clearly, he believes the potential nose-poking an acceptable risk to take in order to deliver an urgent message to Americans: that they need to take a hard look at the matter of why religious belief and behavior is so compelling in the first place, as well as what religion is really “good for,” and for whom. The appropriate way to address this matter, Dennett argues, is through a scientific approach-that is, one based on methodological naturalism. Contra Eliade, there will be no privileged space for the sacred, no sense in which religion will be considered sui generis. Dennett dwells in the overlapping realms of evolution and cognition, and it is in these terms that his inquiry takes place.

But wait a minute …. hasn’t this inquiry been going on for quite some time already? What exactly is Dennett trying to do which hasn’t been done already by scientists such as Tom Lawson and Bob McCauley, Pascal Boyer, D. Jason Slone, David Sloan Wilson, and Walter Burkert? The main, critical difference is that Dennett is not only trying to present the best explanations for religion from cognitive science so far, but additionally to a) advocate for this form of inquiry in the first place to the American general audience, and thereby b) encourage a detached evaluation of the purposes (pragmatic and normative) that religion may serve for such an audience. Make no mistake; Dennett is wading into the culture war. And he is trying to do so from the vantage point of the concerned counselor, but whether the audience will accept him in this role is a different story.

A reader used to Dennett’s previous work, expecting a treatment of religion along the lines of Consciousness Explained, may well find Breaking the Spell a bit of a shock. The reason for this is itself an interesting thing to contemplate. The book is explicitly speculative, offering tentative explanations but stipulating that the exploration of religion as a naturalistic phenomenon still has very far to go. Fair enough. But nevertheless Dennett wants to use these ideas to put forth the notion that maybe, just maybe, religion not only does not benefit us in the proximate, here-and-now sense (as opposed to the ultimate sense, a distinction evolutionary accounts often make), but perhaps it doesn’t even benefit us ultimately. perhaps it exists simply to further itself. To make this case he must establish it on memetic theory, painting a picture through a series of metaphors of religion as a possibly parasitic, possibly symbiotic sort of virus that infects humans because of certain qualities which make it appealing because of adaptations we have evolved for other purposes. Certain inference systems we already have make certain aspects of religion “catchy.” It is an epidemiological account, applied to religion previously by Boyer. But it’s a bit unfortunate that Dennett had to introduce this concept, indeed introduce the book, by likening religion to the lancet fluke-a parasite that invades the brain of an ant and causes it to climb to the top of blades of grass in order to be more easily consumed by cows, into whose bellies the parasite seeks to travel. A cunning analogy? Certainly, but not very flattering. Dennett draws this comparison to point out that humans have evolved to a point at which our own biological fitness-producing a larger number of grandchildren than our neighbors-has taken a backseat to proximate interests. Democracy, freedom, justice-these are “ideas to die for,” as he puts it, and we’re comfortable admitting that. But we wouldn’t say that the ant is “dying for” the lancet fluke. Rather, it is killed by, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. And that is why memetic theory, even (or especially) if it is true, is so discomforting. But then again, some respondents simply find the idea vacuous. Columnist Andrew Brown of the Guardian complains that Dennett “sees the difficulties [of theorizing about religion], marches bravely into the swamp and then – about halfway through the book, at exactly the point where we’re wondering how to reach firm ground – he stops, inflates a hot air balloon that’s labeled “memes”, climbs into it and floats away” (February 25, 2006). H. Allen Orr of the New Yorker agrees: “The existence of a god meme is no better established than the existence of a god” (March 27,2006).

Dennett wants to argue that religious memes are ideas that we sometimes die for or kill for, but more commonly devote our lives to, and that perhaps we should step back and contemplate whether we ought to be doing so. But this requires exhorting us to “rebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators,” as Dawkins originally put it when he coined the term in 1976, leaving us to ask precisely who is doing the rebelling, and with what. For it seems that everything is a meme. It remains highly questionable whether the meme of memetic theory-indeed, of naturalistic inquiry into religion-can be more infectious than the religious memes themselves, and perhaps Dennett is being too optimistic to expect them to be. I suspect that he would say that he has to espouse them regardless.

What kind of counselor? 

Probably the most interesting thing about the reactions to Dennett’s book is the perceptions of how he treats his reader. The book is sprinkled with particular asides to particular types of audiences, ostensibly so that he can cover all of his bases and acknowledge the variety of worldviews that people might bring to his work. But quite a few readers have deemed Dennett not to have the best bedside manner. In a particularly scathing appraisal in the New York Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier complains that “if you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says … Dennett’s own ‘sacred values’ are ‘democracy, justice, life, love and truth.’ This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his ‘impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology,’ then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood” (February 19,2006). Rupert Sheldrake agreed in the Toronto Globe and Mail that “he is pompous when he tries to persuade, even bully, religious believers to go on reading his book, and patronizing toward those who have not achieved the intellectual superiority to which atheists lay claim” (February 4, 2006). But how much of this reaction might stem from Dennett’s candid and proud self-description of atheism? Sheldrake continues that “his commitment to atheism makes him dismiss out of hand the significance of religious experiences.” Adam Kirsch of the New York Sun accuses the book of “frank hostility to religion” and objects that because of his own lack of faith, Dennett is missing the point completely: “at the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about” (February 8, 2006).

What sort of response might the book have received had Dennett made no mention of his personal (a)religious convictions? It’s difficult to tell, and as a vocal proponent of the “bright” movement, Dennett would likely argue that that would be missing the point (July 12, 2003). Attempting to give an objective account of religion and its value should not mean taking for granted that religion is true, therefore there shouldn’t be any problem with a person endorsing just that approach who isn’t religious himself. Of course to some people, this makes about as much sense as a tone-deaf person studying music. But such a person can study music-he can study it from the detached perspective of examining how people produce it and how it affects them, which is precisely how Dennett proposes to study religion. That the old insider/outsider problem should rear its ugly head again comes as no surprise, however we must not make the mistake of assuming, as Dennett himself occasionally seems to do in advance, that any objection to his tone or presentation of the issues should be based on that.

Near the end of the book, Dennett describes believing in God as “a kind of falling in love”- no rational evaluation is made, but rather a kind of helplessness in the face of the object of one’s affection (or faith) which results in a steadfast and enduring commitment (254). And ind~ed, his tone occasionally makes Dennett sound like he is playing the role of relationship counselor to an abused spouse. But he may be up against a love much stronger than he bargained for-after all, people tend to fall in love with more than one person in the course of their lives, and at least with another human you have their continuing presence directly confronting you to remind you of their flaws. When one’s love object is perfect and immaterial, who (or what) can compete? A blogger known as Razib on the blog Gene Expression wrote, “Dennett’s schtick that those who think that religious people can’t analyze their beliefs rationally are being patronizing seems really laughable to me. Most atheists I know have a hard time getting around the fact that many people who are extremely bright (no pun intended in the context of Dennett) sincerely believe that supernatural agents exist and affect the world around us … If the likes of Dennett wish to examine religion as a ‘natural phenomenon,’ they need to acknowledge that perhaps for many humans it is as crucial to their cognitive functioning as elimination is to their digestive system” (March 5, 2006). And indeed, that is exactly the basis on which Kirsch argues that Dennett wants to eliminate religion: “By showing that we evolved to believe, Mr. Dennett hopes to reduce belief to the status of an ordinary human disposition, no more mysterious than our appetite for sweets or our sexual drives. And from there, he hopes, it will be only a short hop to demolishing belief altogether, as a vestige of our prehistory that has become maladaptive in an advanced civilization” (February 8, 2006). Dennett does make the argument that religious memes have become “domesticated” over the years, requiring human stewards for their maintenance and reproduction in a way similar to that in which sheep require shepherds. It would not be too far off the mark to suggest that he is also arguing for them to be domesticated in the sense of pacification as well. Not the absence of Christianity or Islam, but rather a “toothless” version, which doubtless is frightening enough to some.

But … is there a god? 

Perhaps the issue that most readers on either side of the fence, theistic or atheistic, anticipated Dennett addressing was the one that has fascinated analytic philosophers of religion for years does God exist? “Is the theistic account ofthe cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care,” writes Wieseltier. ”’The goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence,” he concludes, is “not very important'” (February 19,2006). And indeed, precious few pages are devoted to the question. Precisely because the topic has been quarrelled over for so long without a good record for converting people from either side to the other, Dennett is not especially interested in wading through the arguments, whether they be ontological, cosmological, or teleological (readers interested in the latter argument would be better advised to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). However, this is not to say that attributes ascribed to God cannot be tested-and this is precisely what Dennett advocates. If a theist wishes to affirm the existence of a god with empirical effects on the world, such as miracles of healing, then these can and should be proved or disproved using empirical methods.

Such a god, a creator god who is a person to whom you could pray, who intervenes in the world, is the one in relation to whom Dennett is an atheist (“bright”). This he makes clear in the book, though it is not (in my impression) the explicit mission of the book to make all readers into atheists as well. There are obviously those who disagree, and it is difficult to tell whether they would do so regardless of what Dennett wrote, provided he also included the commentary about being a “bright” and being proud of it. Does this mere admission amount to evangelism? And does Dennett’s outspoken atheism, in combination with his reliance on and endorsement of evolutionary theory both in past books and the most recent one, equate evolution itself with atheism? Florida State philosopher of biology Michael Ruse seems to think so, as does Intelligent Design proponent Michael Dembski, and a couple of writers at the Guardian seem uncertain, after a recent print exchange which took place in a variety of formats.

The first shot was thrown by someone who wasn’t actually a participant in the conversation- Wieseltier, who in addition to being personally offended by Breaking the Spell, pronounced it a “sorry instance of present-day scientism,” and other reprehensible things. After reading this review, Ruse decided to email Dennett and jab him about it, to which Dennett replied that he thought the New York Times Book Review under the spell of the “Darwin dreaders,” and suggested that Ruse might be unwittingly helping them out. The exchange grew yet more heated, with Ruse taking umbrage at this comment and taking the opportunity to note that he didn’t find Dennett’s new book worthy of him, with a culminating comment: “I think that you and Richard are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms – what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will” (February 21, 2006). Then for some reason Ruse decided to pass on these emails to William Dembski, who promptly (probably gleefully) posted them on his blog Uncommon Descent. 

The exchange was then picked up by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown, earlier the author of a less-than-flattering review of the book, who described the blow-by-blow in a gossipy tone as a battle between evolutionists on the question of how best to combat creationism (March 6,.2006). Then columnist Madeleine Bunting, also of the Guardian, related the matter as part of a piece entitled “Why the intelligent design lobby thanks God for Richard Dawkins,” agreeing with Ruse that both Dawkins and Dennett provide unintentional aid to ill proponents because of their ferocity and frank atheism. She quotes Ruse explaining a particular concern: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool” (March 27, 2006).

Dennett then replied that this was nonsense, as the public schools in American routinely teach facts that conflict with certain religious doctrines-especially in biology (no virgin births, sony) and geology (the earth’s a bit older than 6,000 years).2 But we need to pause now and consider an element of Ruse’s allegation a bit more closely. “If Darwinism equals atheism” … what exactly does that mean? There are several possibilities. Clearly, Ruse does not himself believe that Darwinism “equals” atheism, but he is afraid that Dawkins and Dennett are giving the impression that it does, so the precise meaning must be considered. And would any possible meaning make his statement of the implications correct?

Perhaps he means that evolution forces atheism-that upon hearing about evolution, any theistic person will be instantly de-converted. This obviously is not the case, and no sensible person would claim such since all one need do to disprove it would be to produce a theistic evolutionist (Kenneth Miller would do the job nicely). Then perhaps Ruse is saying that evolution means atheism-that describing evolution is the same as explaining that God does not exist. This would be a hard one to argue, since there is no reason to mention God at any point in a lesson on evolution (one could argue that this in itself is the evidence, though one need not mention God in order to explain how to bake a cake either, and it would be daft to say that cake-baking “means” atheism). Then maybe Ruse means that, rationally considered, evolution makes belief in God incoherent or at least unnecessary. This is a possibility. At least with the respect to the type of god regarding whom both Dawkins and Dennett are atheists, Dawkins at least would likely affirm this to be true. Dennett is rather more cautious, though in his reply to Bunting he notes that “A few evolutionists, such as Ruse and Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, favor the tactic of insisting that evolutionary biology doesn’t deny the existence of a divine creator … Many others, such as Dawkins and myself, fear that the evasiveness of this gambit fuels suspicion and so contributes to ongoing confusion in the US” (April 4,2006).

I think it would be a fair assessment to say Dennett believes that evolution makes consistent the justification of atheism (if atheism needs justification), and logically negates the type of god in whom most Americans profess belief (whether they really believe, or merely believe in belief), the type of god who receives so much space in his book. Is this what it means to “equal” atheism? And if so … so what? What are the implications?

This year’s meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society featured a lunch-time presentation entitled “It’s Time to Speak Up: A Panel Discussion on the Role of Evolutionary Scientists in Public Discourse.” Dennett was a member of the panel, as was U.S. District Judge John Jones, who presided over Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. After Jones had given his talk (introduced with a standing ovation), Dennett stood to praise all of the work that Jones had done, and to take exception to a single statement from the conclusion of the Dover ruling: “Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator [emphasis added].” He questioned whether these scientific experts had had their “feet held to the fire,” and was thankful (with a wink) that he and Richard Dawkins had not been the experts called to the stand.

Michael Ruse and those who agree with him may be doing their best to make evolution palatable to the religious believer in the U.S., and may even be correct that people such as Dennett and Dawkins are not helping their cause. But that is a matter of public relations, not constitutional rights, and anyone who tried to make a freedom of expression case on the grounds that evolution “equals” atheism would not have a prayer of winning. If the claim is going to be made (repeatedly) that evolution is compatible with belief in God, then perhaps we ought not leave it at that. Perhaps an attempt ought to be made to explain exactly how it is compatible, and with which kindof god. This is the case Dennett is making, in the name of forthrightness. In every issue on which science is in conflict (or apparently in conflict) with public opinion, there will be those who lean more toward palatability, and those who lean toward “Just the facts, ma’am.” It seems pretty clear who is on which side in this matter. Dennett’s political campaign is not just for the acceptance of evolution, but for the acceptance of atheism-for the population of “brights” in the country. How can he reasonably be expected to remain silent about one while espousing the other?

In Breaking the Spell, Dennett really pulls no punches. The urgency of the book, the candidness of his tone, and his moral arguments mark it as not merely as an introduction to the cognitive science of religion, but an overt attempt to persuade Americans of faith (and without) to carefully, objectively, consider what that means for them as individuals and for society. This in itself would earn the book a negative response from many, leaving aside the question of whether Dennett comes off as genuine in his open-minded approach of “religion may be good for us or bad-let’s find out.” That will have to be left to the reader. Many have waded in on the subject already, and doubtless many more will follow. But when doing so, hopefully they will remember that most of Dennett’s arguments can easily be made by a theist as well, and become intrigued to discover more about what the scientific study of religion has to offer. After all, we’re still only at the beginning, and there are exciting times ahead.

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